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Sheriff: I will stop enforcing evictions
Legal, real estate experts wonder how Dart's promise will play out

Thursday, October 09, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Azam Ahmed and Ofelia Casillas

As the nationwide mortgage crisis puts the squeeze on homeowners, the Cook County sheriff's office is on pace to evict more people than ever from foreclosed homes.

At least it was until Wednesday, when Sheriff Tom Dart announced he wouldn't do it anymore.

Dart cited the growing number of evictions that involve rent-paying tenants who suddenly learn their building is in foreclosure because the landlord neglected to pay the mortgage. By refusing to do any foreclosure-related evictions, the hope is that banks will change their policies.

As it happens, the decision also will spare from eviction those legitimately in foreclosure.

It is the latest, and perhaps most curious, government response to the soaring number of foreclosures. Even as federal bailouts and rescues are under way, the local action provoked a mixture of respect and confusion from housing advocates and banks.

Indeed, some mortgage experts suggested Dart's vow could compound problems by making lenders reluctant to extend credit at a time when loans are already hard to get.

In Cook County, foreclosures are expected to reach a record high of 43,000 this year, compared with 18,916 in 2006.

The sheriff's office is on pace to conduct 4,500 foreclosure-related evictions, compared with less than half that number in 2006. About one-third of those are rent-paying individuals.

Katrina McMullin, 34, was paying her rent on time, but that didn't stop a deputy from coming to her Northwest Side door with a notice of eviction. She had received no notice from her landlord.

"How dare they take my rent and still evict me?" said McMullin, who is staying in the apartment after hiring a lawyer. "It wasn't fair."

Then there are the homeowners on the brink, including Rossana Trujillo. She has been in negotiations with the bank to come up with a means to pay down her $340,000 debt without losing her home, the first for her husband and three children.

She's not hopeful.

"Our home, we are going to lose it," she said. "Paying the mortgage, there was not enough money for gas or for food."

And although the sheriff's move may spare her in the near term, ultimately it will not keep her from facing foreclosure.

Dart acknowledged he is at risk of violating court orders to evict and could be found in contempt. But he says he also is responsible for making sure justice is being done. "We will no longer be a party to something that's so unjust," he said.

Cook County Circuit Chief Judge Timothy Evans could not be reached for comment. Dart planned to meet with judges Thursday.

The move relates to evictions based on mortgage foreclosures, not those involving violations of rental agreements.

Still, most officials in surrounding counties, also struggling with unprecedented levels of foreclosures, found the move beyond the scope of a sheriff.In Will County, Sheriff Paul Kaupas was apprehensive about halting evictions and suggested the courts should suspend eviction orders.

Pat Barry, spokesman for Kaupas, said, "If we disregard the law, what kind of message are we sending?"

Kane County Sheriff Patrick Perez said he understood Dart's motivation, having worked in the civil division dealing with evictions.

"I saw more misery in those two years than I did in the 14 or 15 years of criminal law enforcement before it," he said.

Some commended Dart's move as a way to slow things down and allow for a more clearly defined process.

"There a lot of things going on that are not proper procedure, and the Sheriff's Department has been caught in the middle," said Kathy Clark, executive director of the Lawyer's Committee for Better Housing.

The sheriff's complaint stems from the extra work his office does on behalf of lenders. Dart says he is tired of his deputies showing up at homes for an eviction and finding tenants who are not on the mortgage. Taxpayers foot the bill for that work.

Dart said he will resume foreclosure-related evictions when lenders agree to do their own due diligence in figuring out who is living in foreclosed properties.

But the bold step could make matters worse for aspiring homeowners and the market, some experts say.

"It would have a significant impact because obviously lenders would be hesitant to lend if they knew that if someone defaulted they wouldn't be able to take the property back," said Frank Binetti, vice president of the Illinois Mortgage Bankers Association. "It would create higher risks for lenders and they would have to price that into the loans, if they even chose to lend in Cook County.

"The only thing you have as a lender is the collateral, and if you aren't able to retrieve the collateral, why are you even lending in the first place?"

Tribune reporters Mary Owen, Liam Ford, Lisa Black and freelance reporter Cliff Ward contributed to this report.



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